Anyone hungry for more Beef?
After a packed nine days in which the Netflix dark comedy swept at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, the show was officially crowned best limited series at the 2023 Emmys on Monday night, with seven additional trophies between the Primetime and Creative Arts ceremonies, including best actor for Steven Yeun and best actress for Ali Wong as the feuding duo Danny and Amy, respectively. The next day, creator Lee Sung Jin – who personally also won for writing the pilot and directing the finale – phoned The Hollywood Reporter to talk about lessons learned as a first-time showrunner as well as what he would do with a potential (not yet officially greenlit) second season.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How was the rest of your night after the show ended?
We left the HBO party around 1:30 [a.m.], so it wasn’t too late. I’m just so happy to have experienced all of that with some of my best friends. I just got off the phone with Steven and Ali a little bit ago. We’ve gotten so close since we’ve wrapped, and their speeches were so genuine and earnest, it got me teary seeing them up there. To celebrate afterwards was so much fun. I know it’s very rare, it may not ever happen for me again.
I’m not so sure about that. How much of a potential season 2 of Beef have you worked on so far?
I’m constantly writing stuff down in my Notes app, weird interactions I have in my life or things I observe, and Lord knows there’s plenty of beef out there in the world. I’m constantly jotting ideas down and there’s so much that I want to explore, but this awards season has been pretty nonstop, so I’m excited to have a chance to settle and, Netflix willing, look hard in the mirror and start observing myself and some uncomfortable things about my own psyche and then dive back into something.
You’ve said that you envision Beef as an anthology series. What would be the thematic throughline connecting all the seasons?
At a surface level, the theme of Beef is always conflict, it’s always separateness. But separateness rears its head in so many ways. Season 1 was strangers, but separateness happens even in the most intimate of dynamics, at the workplace, in family. I wanted to talk about it a little bit in the speech last night of how this world is really designed — everywhere you turn — to keep us separate. So I think Beef will just by its title always have that simmering underneath, but in terms of what the other layers could be, that’s something that I’d really need to take some time and see deep inside what wants to come out.
What did you learn from your experience on the first season?
On a technical level, I’ve learned a ton about filmmaking: There’s infinite places where you can put the camera, and those choices can subtly affect the viewer and how they feel about a character or how much they’re with a character. That was just one of the incredible lessons of making Beef, testing out things like that. And working with someone like [producing director] Jake Schreier, who’s one of my best friends and taught me so much about directing.
On a deeper level, I’ve learned how important it is to surround yourself with incredible talent and close friends. I know people thank studios and networks all the time but I genuinely am so grateful for the friendships I have with [television executives] Ravi Nandan and Alli Reich at A24, I talk to them so often, and Jinny [Howe, head of drama series] and Irene [Lee, director of original series] and honestly Peter [Friedlander, head of U.S. and Canada scripted series] and Bela [Bajaria, chief content officer] at Netflix, we’ve all gotten so close. I think there was something about making Beef that made all of us bring our guards down a little bit more than usual. It’s all about people at the end of the day, so the way you communicate and collaborate with one another does affect the art that you’re creating. I’m very excited for season 2, if there is one, to get to experience that with a group of people again: the communal, collaborative, close friendships that you form.
When you say “if there is one,” is that dependent on yourself or on Beef’s production companies,Netflix and A24?
The latter – I feel very fortunate to just even be writing, to be a working writer, and if given the opportunity I would love to keep going, whether on this or another idea I have. I know how the business is contracting, and it seems like it gets harder and harder every year for us writers to get something to the finish line, so I don’t take these opportunities for granted. If they said, “Hey, let’s go on to season 2 and make an anthology,” I’d be ready.
What challenges did you encounter as a first-time showrunner, particularly working with A24, which at the time was relatively new to making television?
I’m sure a lot of other showrunners may mention this, but it’s always a lack of time and resources. You enter the season being like, “All right, I think we have a good plan,” and then halfway in, you’re like, “Oh no! We are running out of so many things and so much time!” That was a big lesson that we only were able to hurdle by the incredible crew that we had. Everyone was just all hands on deck, working so hard. We would not have a show without the people that were involved.
With A24, it comes down to the relationships. Ravi Nandan I actually knew decades ago. He was the producer on one of my first pilots I ever sold, and we had kind of kept in touch through the years. Pre-pandemic, my manager Ben [Rowe] was like, “You guys should get lunch because it’s been a minute.” It was at that lunch that I was telling him about this road rage story that happened to me in real life, asking him, “Do you think there’s something here?” He was the very first person who really encouraged me to keep going and flesh this out. Having that kind of sounding board and truly a friend to be able to pitch things off of makes the whole process go not necessarily smoother but denser with creativity because you feel like you’re in it together, versus an employer-employee relationship.
Do you envision subsequent seasons as part of the same universe? Could we potentially, even in passing, see Danny and Amy again?
Of course those thoughts have crossed my mind. It’s fun to think about, but it’s hard to say because writing often feels like you’re channeling something bigger than yourself, and the story almost starts to have a life of its own and you’re chasing the thing that wants to be told. For example, in season 1 the real road rage incident was with a white male driver, and instead of following it literally, the story led us in a different direction. For season 2 it’s hard to even imagine whether it’s the same universe until we really start to excavate and see what wants to rear its head. And then we’ll chase it, and if that includes the same universe or some fun little callback, great, but that would be ornamental to all of it. I really need to look into the abyss and see what’s staring back first.
One thing I really appreciated about Beef is that it truly is a universally resonant show, and I think a standard bearer for what representation should actually mean. You don’t need to utter the word “Asian” or “Korean” to describe Beef or to understand it, but are you interested in continuing to explore characters who are Asian?
I’m definitely open. I don’t want to speak for Steven and Ali but at least for me, what’s been great about Beef is that it’s allowed me to be myself, and myself includes a lot of things, one of which is being Korean American, but it also includes so many other things, like my love for Incubus. And so going forward, whether we’re given an opportunity to continue Beef or something else, I just want to do my best to continually be honest and be myself. If the narrative is calling for exploring more of my Korean Americanness, great, if it’s exploring more of my Koreanness, that’s also cool, if it’s exploring more of my love for early aughts screamo, that’s great too. I think what Beef has shown is that we can be ourselves and be really specific and still reach a universal audience.
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